Monday, November 22, 2010

Financial crisis and the media: The failure of the Fourth Estate in Greece

As seen on TV., originally uploaded by Teacher Dude's BBQ.

It hardly comes as a surprise that the Greek media is less than impartial and that each part has its own line when it comes to political and financial issues. In the UK the fact that the Telegraph is a strong supporter of the Conservatives or the The Guardian has a left wing bent comes as a surprise to no one. Indeed this is one of the reasons readers choose one rather than the other. Here in Greece the same holds for TV stations as well as newspapers, though sometimes in less obvious ways as the nightly news bulletins aspire to respectability through trying to appear objective in their presentation of the day's events.

However, this veneer of objectivity has started to wear even thinner as the effects of Greece's economic crisis grow ever more apparent and the authorities desperately try to balance the demands of the country's creditors for cuts and reforms with a population deeply unhappy with the current state of affairs. This is most easily seen in the state run channels such as NET, ET1 and ET3 which nightly have a running commentary which is virtually indistinguishable from the official party line and like South Korea's “sunshine policy” attempts to avoid confrontation with government officials and present their policies in the best possible light. In other words spinning the administration's spin still further till the resulting story resembles something drafted by a Soviet era Pravda editorial team.

Case in point has been the visit to Athens by the IMF, EU, ECB trioka in order to negotiate the terms of Greece's next installment of the country's bailout package. The fact that the payment had been delayed was initially attributed by both the ERT news agency and the government to technical difficulties, which clashed with stories running in both Associated Press and Deutsche Welle that reported that the delay had been caused by the Austrian finance minister, Josef Proell threat to withhold his country's contribution to the bailout fund if Greece did not fulfill its obligation to raise more tax revenues. Other Greek media outlets did mention the news once it came out in the international press but even today there is no mention of Austria's role in the current negotiations in the state run ERT online news service .

In addition the recent government split between prime minister Giorgos Papandreou and employment minister Louka Katseli over whether Greece should accept the Trioka's demands for more flexible employment legislation and the abolition of industry wide contracts has been either underplayed or ignored. The disagreement between the minister and creditor's has threatened to derail talks over the terms and conditions of the multi – billion loan, yet today ERT top domestic news story is that foreign minister, Dimitris Droutsas has warned Turkey that failure to remove troops from Northern Cyprus will affect it EU application bid.

Unable to hide the fact that negotiations with the EU and IMF are not going as planned the government and it supporters in the media are attempting to divert attention elsewhere, preferably towards an external “enemy” in order to look tough on national issues. The reality is that such smoke and mirrors cannot hide the fact the Papandreou will almost certainly be forced to backtrack on pre -election promises not to implement further austerity measures further undermining his standing within the ruling PASOK party and the electorate in general.

It's also measure of how much the troika – Katseli affair has spooked the government and their media allies that the pro – government Skai TV channel news commentators were frantically demanding the minister return to the back benches and not disrupt talks that threaten to shipwreck the country. Such partisan statements in news bulletins means that even the pretense of neutrality is being dumped in a last ditch attempt to persuade viewers that Athens is in charge of the situation and not attempting to play a terrible hand of poker with all its cards on show.

Far away from the glare of the TV studio lights the majority of Greeks have written off both the media and the government convinced that neither can be trusted and that vital decisions concerning the future are no longer in the hands of their elected officials. With businesses closing at an ever faster rate and yet more VAT and tax hikes the reality of the situation is that Greece's future is grim and this can no longer be hidden. Despite almost Orwellian attempts by the seven state run outlets to call wage cuts, “readjustments” and the crisis an “opportunity” people are no longer listening to this daily diet of spin, evasion and PR hot air.

There is, however, still much to be learned from ERT (Greece's answer to the BBC) presentation of the news if one looks deep enough. Like sovietologists of old poring over the latest copy of Pravda there is a lot to be gleaned in the choice and order of news items. The first few items often give an insight into what PR line is being promoted which in turn allows the careful observer to understand what the authorities are most worried about. Hence last weeks triumphant headlines that Greece had secured the third tranche of cash from the EU was an indicator that there were doubts that over if the money would indeed be paid.

Similarly today's revanchist statements by the foreign minister is a fairly strong indicator that Papandreou's government is in deep trouble and is looking to create a diversion. Not that we will find out this from NET, ET1 etc but most likely from a TV station or newspaper supported by the opposition or more plausibly foreign media such as the BBC or Reuters. 

To understand why the local media is so bad and getting to the truth you have to understand the close, almost incestuous relationship between journalists and politicians. For the media news IS party politics, sometimes to the exclusion of virtually everything else and that access to sources is worth all kinds of compromises. This is not just a Greek phenomenon but the fact the mainstream political parties are able to reward the "right kind" of coverage with lucrative positions as "consultants" or even candidates in local and national elections means that many reporters do not bite the hand that feeds them.

Nor is the situation in the private sector much better as TV stations and other news outlets are owned by very rich men who use them as a way of gaining leverage with the state by supporting or criticising politicians and parties in order to win lucrative state contracts or to derail legislation not in their interest. In such an environment the Fourth Estate is simply a tool to be used to sway public opinion and so apply pressure when needed. 

On rare occasions where journalists do show integrity the cost is their livelihood as documentary film maker Stelios Koulaglou found out to his cost when he aired a documentary on the state run NET channel on unemployment critical of the then ruling New Democracy government. The result was  his instant dismissal and the end of a well respected TV series Reportage Horis Synora (Reporting Without Borders), which had been running since 1996 and had four times been awarded Best news Programme of the Year.


El said...

Well the stance many journalists took during the first months of the recession was a bit like a different kind of sunshine policy: The sun is shinning, everything will be alright, you folks don't have to worry about a thing. Unless of course they were supportive of the main opposition party. What came next was the realisation (on our behalf) that some of them would have been more subtle if they were on the gov's payroll (which some of them are said to be anyway). No spokesman for any government would have dared to say some of the things certain journos had the nerve to say.
Then of course came the "Aganaktismenoi" movement and the mockery. "Is this your plan to save the economy?Tents outside the parliament?" . But when that didn't work (work being make people go home), then we had every single journo on any major channel talking about how there is too much tension and anything can cause the people to blow up. Which didn't exactly happen 2 days ago but that's a different story.
A great example of all there was a Skai reporter yesterday afternoon and before the PM had addressed his deputes: She talked about history repeating itself with a second round of "July events" (a ref to 1965 events), and used the expression "Iouliana" at least 5 times (I wasn't counting). After the PM had addressed his MPs tho, she started talking about "shameless PASOK sources who were circling rumors about Iouliana, something that lucks any historical base whatsoever" . Oh, yes! She had the nerve to insult our intelligence THAT much. And I'm betting everyone else did the same but I was watching skai at the time.
Sorry for the really long comment :(

teacher dude said...

Thank you for taking the time to put your point in detail. Yes, the Greek media are a loss to deal with current demos, they've tried ignoring it, deriding it, attempting to co-opt and now are back to pretending it doesn't exist.